Equine Assisted Psychotherapy - the life of Lancashire's horse whisperers
PUBLISHED: 18:15 05 November 2012 | UPDATED: 19:46 18 April 2016
Our bond with horses is well-known but is it strong enough to help solve our emotional problems? Alison Coleman finds out
There’s a special bond between horse and man, steeped in history and still in evidence today. But few places is it as profound or as heart-warming than in the pioneering work being done by Burnley-based psychotherapist Julie Stirpé.
She and her five horses are helping youngsters and adults overcome some huge emotional and physical challenges.
She said: ‘My two biggest passions in life are horses and therapy; the first, ever since I was able to sit on one, and the second inspired by the film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest which I saw when I was about 13. Thirty-five years on, I’m discovering that the two can complement each other with some incredible results.’
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), the practice of using horses as a therapeutic medium, has been around for some time, but it wasn’t until three years ago, after specialist training, that Julie began using it to help some of her own clients.
‘I’m lucky in that I have my own horses and equestrian facilities here on the farm, but it wasn’t an easy decision,’ she explains. ‘As a psychotherapist you have to remain very contained emotionally, especially when you are working with damaged children. My horses are my friends, part of my family, and quite separate from my working life. Would I struggle emotionally with involving them in my professional life?’
Her two teenage sons were enthusiastic; her husband a little less so, but Julie’s concerns soon proved unfounded as the healing power of the horses began to deliver results.
Some patients, as young as four and caught up in distressing child protection proceedings, have responded particularly well. The experience starts when they arrive at Crow Wood Equestrian Centre. They choose a horse to work with and spend an hour in the arena going through various exercises as part of the therapy programme. The horses are loose and are never ridden, and have an equine specialist keeping an eye on them, while the therapist focuses on the client.
Julie explained: ‘They are trying to overcome a problem, and the process of getting the horse to do something with them, for example, creating a timeline in the sand using a box of props, helps them put things in order in their mind.
‘They’ll start talking about what they are doing and I then will explore it with them. The horse is a tool in the therapy session, but the connection they make with the person is just incredible. Nothing else has that power.’
To date Julie Stirpé Associates’ 11-strong team of qualified psychologists and therapists has treated around 20 youngsters with measurable, positive change and positive emotional impact in every case.
Julie said: ‘One little boy who was seven came to us with a lot of problems. He had extreme difficulty regulating his own behaviour; he was full-on, in your face, literally, and like a whirling dervish, yet on this particular day I watched him stand in the arena with Tick, my biggest horse at the time, quietly and calmly reaching out to touch him and then stepping back. By seeing how close he could get to the horse, he was actually working out his own space, and that was incredibly moving to see.’
Adults too, with issues ranging from mental health problems to the impact of divorce, have been helped by the therapy.
Julie, whose speciality is adult mental health, recalled: ‘A lady in her late 20s who had multiple problems, including agoraphobia, was referred to me for formal therapy sessions. I worked with her for about 18 months and towards the end of the programme we talked about the possibility of her working with the horses.
‘She got the bus from her home to Burnley and I collected her and brought her to the farm, which presented immediate challenges for her with its wide open spaces and sweeping views.’
But what happened next came as a complete surprise. ‘The horse she chose to work with was the most nervous and least trusting animal; a bit stand-offish; but actually a complete mirror image of how she was feeling, and she was just brilliant with him.
‘We worked for an hour in the arena while she talked about her connection to that particular horse and we compared it to parenting, one of her problem areas, and made some real headway.
‘She had a doctor’s appointment on her way home and the next day he rang me to say“What have you done to her?” He’d never seen such a remarkable change in anybody. Just that one session had been a massive confidence boost for her. The emotional shift that we often see after EAP, for her had been an emotional landslide, which was wonderful.’
What makes these positive outcomes all the more remarkable is that each of Julie’s horses; Bob, Minty, Polly, Harley and Darcy have distinct personalities of their own and will respond differently to different individuals. So how does their connection with people really work?
‘My own theory is that horses are herd animals, and their instincts are a genetic survival resource. If you spend your life with your head down eating grass, and someone on the edge of the herd senses danger, the rest have to be attuned to the tiniest reaction or movement and ready to respond.
‘I believe it is that intuitive alignment between herd members that exists between domesticated horses and their carers, who they bond with and react to on an emotional level,’ she says.
The applications for EAP are broad and interest from business, education and health organisations is growing.
Julie added: ‘It is a powerful force that I believe will have a lasting impact, but it requires qualified and experienced therapists who know how to use it and get the best out of it.’
Not to mention some very special horses.